The conventional rule in boxing is, the bigger the man, the more the advantage.
It makes sense. There's a reason combat sports have weight classes after all. Bigger guys have more muscle. Bigger guys also have longer arms. That means they can throw punches from further away than opponents with shorter arms can. They can, technically, punch a shorter opponent before he can return the favour.
A textbook presentation of this principle could be seen in how Kazakhstan's Saken Bibossinov boxed in his flyweight (52kg) semifinal match of the Boxing World Championships against India's Amit Panghal.
The 23-year-old Panghal is shorter than every other opponent in his division. Bibossinov is among the tallest. Indian coaches reckon he had at least six inches on Panghal, who stands 5'2" in his socks. The Kazakh had drained himself of every ounce of useless fat and water to fit into his division, and against Panghal, he would take the benefit of that sacrifice. He pumped his right glove out, keeping Panghal at bay, even as the Indian skipped in and out of range, looking to get the Kazakh within his own punching radius. Ever so often, Panghal miscalculated his footwork and took a punch to the face. Bibossinov's was, in theory, a sound tactic. It was in practice too. Right until exactly one minute to go in Round 1.
Panghal feinted at stepping forward. His hands were held invitingly low, and Bibossinov gleefully took the bait, extending his right jab down at the figure of the crouching Indian. What Bibossinov realised too late was that with his arm extended down, he had opened up his entire guard. Almost simultaneously, Panghal slipped right, away from that exploratory jab, swung in his left glove over Bibossinov's eager right fist and brought it crashing into the side of his temple. It was now Panghal's time to give a rather chastening instruction to Bibossinov on the challenges of taking on a smaller opponent. The lessons would repeat over the next couple of rounds too, with Panghal taking a split decision to become the first Indian boxer to reach the finals of the men's World Championships.
Panghal has always been the little guy. The littlest of guys, really. Overeager promoters of the national boxing federation have somehow coined the nickname, 'Chhota Tyson' for him, and at least the first part of that moniker is true.
Panghal was born a premature baby and he was smaller than most of his peers even when he first started boxing at Amit Dhankar's academy in Mayna village in Haryana's Rohtak district.
Panghal, though, never seemed to care about just how little he was. "He was always getting into trouble with the bigger guys. He'd always take them on. If we were flying kites, he would always steal a kite and run away. If the kids were playing marbles, he'd pick some up and dash off," recalls elder brother Ajay. "The other kids would try to catch him but they never could. He was always too fast," he says.
That speed -- fast hands and quick feet -- came handy in the boxing hall too. "At first, Amit would box with other kids who were about as tall as him. But even when they started growing faster than him, he would continue to box with them. He used to box with (current Indian heavyweight) Sanjeet too," says Ajay, who himself boxed at the national-level before taking up a job with the Indian army in order to support his younger brother's career.
Even when Panghal started boxing competitively and shifted to the lightest weight category, he was usually the smallest in his class. That, however, didn't stop him from being successful. "When he won his junior national title at 16 years in 2011, he was already boxing in the senior Haryana state-level. He was barely 46 kilos and he was boxing guys who were cutting down to make the 49kg light flyweight class. Because he was so young, they didn't let him box at the senior Nationals even after he won the Haryana state tournament," says Ajay.
Panghal has been successful because he knows how to counter the advantages of taller opponents. He is only vulnerable if he plays the game of taller boxers, which is to box according to reach. Once he's inside their range, he has the advantage of needing less space to punch. "Amit is smaller yes, but he's also faster than every other boxer. He knows that if he gets inside their reach, they can't defend effectively," says national coach Santiago Nieva.
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That's easier said than done. If Panghal has to close the gap with taller opponents, he has to first run a gauntlet of punches. He could bum rush an opponent but that wouldn't work against a boxer who's got his guard up. So Panghal has a pocketful of tricks to lower just that -- he'll feint, throwing a punch himself, change levels, bob up and down and sidestep within range -- anything to make his opponent commit to a punch. Once that happens, he'll quickly step to the side and counter. While this isn't a foolhardy approach, there's plenty of courage that is needed to execute it. "Often Amit won't even keep a guard against taller boxers. He wants them to come after him. He takes the risk that he will be hit but knows that he can use his movement to beat their punch and hit them back first," says Ajay.
Panghal has perfected this to an art. So much so that his brother reckons he performs better against taller boxers. "His entire life, he's been boxing against bigger opponents. So now it's easier for him to box against them. He understands exactly how to find his distance. It's harder for him to box against opponents who are his size," says Ajay.
This took Nieva by surprise when he first took charge of the Indian boxing team a couple of years ago. Nieva's preference at flyweight was Shyam Kumar, a relatively tall boxer with good technique. Yet, whenever Panghal boxed him in trials, he was always the clear winner. Those performances earned Panghal a steady spot in the national team, and he rewarded that faith with a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games and a gold medal at the Asian Games last year -- the latter including a win against Olympic champion Hasanboy Dusmatov in the final.
When AIBA increased the Olympic flyweight limit to 52kg in January this year, it was a decision that raised concerns for Ajay, if not his brother. There was no choice but to move up a division but a boxer who moves from the 49kg category to the 52kg, is mathematically giving up a little more than six percent advantage in muscle and bone mass -- a huge gap at the elite level. Boxers who were naturally close to the flyweight limit had an advantage over boxers like Panghal. Boxers like Dusmatov who were so dominant in the 49 kg class -- and had been named the best boxer at the Rio Olympics -- has all but disappeared from the international scene following the introduction of the new weight classes.
"For the first time, I was nervous about how he would do. He had to first make a name for himself against all the bigger guys in the national camp. He had to beat Sachin Siwach (former youth World champion), Gaurav Solanki (Commonwealth Games gold medalist at 52kg) to first earn the right to play at the Asian Championships," he said.
Panghal would do that. And then at the Asian Championships, beat Dusmatov again, and then Rio Olympic flyweight bronze medalist Hu Jianguan. He had done this despite having to gain weight quickly, which in turn slowed him down.
For the World Championships though, he was in perfect shape. And while he had the same issues to deal with, Panghal has overcome them in comprehensive fashion.
"Amit has been in tremendous form this tournament. He's found out his level and he knows what he's good at. He's not got the best reach and the Kazakh was able to box at in the first round. But once Amit found his rear (left) hand in the end of the round, he was confident of the distance he needed to be at. Once he got his timing right, he boxed the fight on his terms," says Nieva.
There's a wasp-like persistence to the pressure Panghal puts on his rivals. Each time he danced in and out of range, he would put Bibossinov's nerves on edge and trigger his right jab prematurely. Every so often, Panghal would punish him for that mistake. If Bibossinov punched too early, Panghal countered over the top of his jab. And if he waited too long, he threw his looping left hook around the held-up guard. By the second round, he was snapping Bibossinov's head back with the looping left hand at will.
More often than not, Bibossinov's own responses landed on Panghal's shoulders or missed his crouched body entirely. This too was of Panghal's doing. "We know the difficulty of being the smaller guy. But If you are a larger guy, Amit has a bigger area to hit. When Amit boxes, he makes himself as small as he can. He's never coming straight at you and he's always moving and coming from different angles. He makes himself as small a target as possible and is just so difficult to catch," says Nieva.
In Saturday's finals, it is Uzbekistan's Shakhobidin Zoirov will go in as the favourite. He's a natural flyweight and an Olympic champion in that category. Once again, he will have the height and reach advantage over Panghal. Nieva is quietly optimistic. He wants nothing more than Panghal to box the same way against his opponent in the finals as he has been doing the entire week. "Amit's boxing has been near-perfect this week. He's turned what should be a disadvantage to an advantage," he says.